Jeanette Spicer’s new photography book, “Sea(see),” is partly a record of a romantic relationship, and partly an inquiry into what it means to be looked at. The book consists of twenty-one photographs, mostly portraits of Spicer’s girlfriend at the time, Steph. In the photos, Steph is often entirely nude. She lies stretched out on a couch with light slanting across her breasts and calves; she stands by a window with her back to the camera, two tracks of scratch marks visible on either side of her spine. Clearly the product of a love affair, the photos cast Steph’s nakedness in contrast to the history of the nude as painted and photographed by men. In Spicer’s portraits, Steph’s nakedness is sometimes explicitly sexual, sometimes silly and tender, and never meant for male consumption. The photos have an air of intimacy and privacy that’s so acute it almost feels invasive, as an outsider, to look at them.
The collection of images looks like it could have been made in the course of a single, languorous weekend getaway. A Minnie Mouse towel is draped over a chair seen through a sliding glass door. Steph sits naked, knees up, on a white-sand beach; she stands on the side of a wooded hill among long, straight shadows of trees, her bare feet on a bed of brown pine needles. But the photos, in fact, were taken in the span of more than a year, roughly the duration of Spicer’s relationship with Steph. The couple began dating, in 2013, around the time that Spicer was finishing an M.F.A. in photography, at Parsons, and was trying to re-start and reimagine her career as a photographer. It was a time of flux in her personal life, too; Spicer’s relationship with Steph was her first with a woman.
“What We Found,” 2014.
Steph, who was already out when they met, presents as more masculine than Spicer. In the photographs, she wears her hair short and her jeans loose. The series comes across as Spicer’s meditation, through Steph, on the new forms that she was in the process of discovering at the time, the new kinds of portraiture, womanhood, and love that were possible. In one photo, Steph’s hands are pictured lying on a creased green curtain, her curled left fingers stained with Spicer’s menstrual blood. The picture is striking for its frank, loving depiction of the messy aftermath of sex. It’s also a striking visual metaphor for the project as a whole, with Steph very literally reaching Spicer’s interior self and bringing it outward.
How comfortable is Steph being this kind of muse? One of the most conspicuous elements in “Sea(see)” is that her face is almost always hidden, angled away from the camera or cropped out of the frame. In a photo titled “Walking up,” she leans forward, head down, at the top of a staircase; we see just one ear and the tip of her nose. In another photo, Steph reaches both hands over her head. We can make out that she has blue eyes and a strong jaw. Despite the intimacy of the photographs, the model is enigmatic, difficult to read. In an interview with the magazine Dazed, Spicer said that this is partly a result of the equipment she used for the series, a medium-format 6×7 camera. “The focus on this camera is very tricky,” she said. “You don’t necessarily see the whole picture.”
“Your Mom’s Oranges,” 2014.
“Reflective Virginia,” 2014.
“The Last Photograph I Took of You,” 2014.
“Light Line,” 2014.
“What I Left,” 2014.
“Marylin Jumps,” 2014.
“Walking Up,” 2014.
“Weekend Morning,” 2014.